Commentary: Transparency still necessary with electronic meetings

By Keith Steck and Nick Wasileski

The July 10 virtual meeting of the Rehoboth Beach Planning Commission’s review of the Clear Space Theatre and the Rehoboth Spotlight site plans raises issues regarding implementation of Gov. John Carney’s COVID-19 proclamation on public comment in electronic meetings.

Because the coronavirus has forced government agencies to modify operations, Gov. Carney issued Proclamation No. 17-3292 in March, authorizing public bodies to use video/telephone conferencing technology and to hold contemporaneous “virtual” public meetings. Public bodies must adapt their practices to be consistent with the governor’s proclamation.

As stated in the Planning Commission’s July 10 agenda, however, members of the public wishing to comment were directed to register “at least two full business days prior to the meeting.”

The two-day registration requirement misinterprets the “contemporaneous” aspect of Gov. Carney’s proclamation. Point 2 specifies that the technology must allow “members of the public to hear comments of and speak to such members of the public body contemporaneously.”

Preregistration contradicts Point 2 of the proclamation: Not only does two-day advance registration inhibit public input, thus discouraging new information, but the requirement also is a violation of Gov. Carney’s proclamation.

Moreover, prohibiting contemporaneous interchange of ideas prevents real-time reaction to spontaneous public comments. Now, eight weeks after the July 10 Planning Commission meeting, there still are no publicly available written minutes — in which we would expect to see a listing of those who signed up for the two-day registration requirement — on the city’s website.

Newark City Council allows live public comments and electronic comments, such as email messages, to be submitted contemporaneously. They are read into the record by the city secretary without advance requirement. During the Aug. 24 debate on the emergency ordinance restricting large social gatherings, a Newark resident sent the city secretary a two-paragraph email, which was read into the record. Newark’s adherence to the contemporaneous aspect of Gov. Carney’s proclamation is a good example for other Delaware public bodies.

To ensure the public has adequate time to respond to contemporaneous comments, the public-comment period should remain open. For example, the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control keeps its public record open for two weeks after its virtual hearings, although this agency has not permitted public comment during virtual hearings. Immediately closing the record diminishes public input and undermines transparency and accountability.

Allowing both live comments at meetings and keeping records open is only fair and is consistent with Gov. Carney’s order. We urge Rehoboth Beach to adhere to the governor’s proclamation on contemporaneous electronic meetings to allow for additional public comment and also to clarify their policies.

Will residents still be required to register two days in advance? Will last-minute speakers be accommodated? Will the current expediency of virtual meetings replace in-person meetings at the expense of transparency and accountability? Though of great value, virtual meetings lack the impact of live comment and debate and are not an equitable replacement for in-person meetings.

Public bodies should clarify that they want and value public input, as well as make clear whether they will revert to live, in-person meetings, while maintaining a virtual attendance option, after the expiration of the governor’s proclamation.

Keith Steck is vice president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government (DelCOG) and lives in Milton. Nick Wasileski is president of DelCOG and lives in Newark. More information can be found at https://www.facebook.com/DelCOG-Delaware-Coalition-for-Open-Government-203229005629/.